The Arcola’s production of David Watson’s third play is a sophisticated audio-visual affair. Its utilisation of wrap- around video footage, surround sound and physical effects is a media student’s dream. But does the production prioritise technical wizardry over substance?
This is a real concern as the audience take their seats in the middle of the theatre (there are no chairs, just cushions). But it’s one that proved to be unfounded.
From placing you in the back of a car driving through the rain in Northern Ireland to situating you in a park watching a child cycle in circles, the use of multimedia is never an end in itself; rather, it serves to fully immerse the audience in the world of the play.
The effect of four walls of video projections (akin to going on a 3D ride at a theme park) is all-encompassing, visceral, dislocating and highly successful.
The eponymous Vincent (Adam Best) is a restless and rootless wanderer, with an accent hailing from County Down but whose immediate family is living in Australia. A part-time artist, he is still in love with Rachel (Sian Clifford), who has swapped both their relationship and university-era purple hair and piercings for smart clothes, marriage and a Kafkaesque office, stacked floor-to-ceiling with ring binders.
Vincent is introduced in the second of four scenes, each of which take place on a different side of the theatre and introduce three pairs of characters – all of whom are (or will be) connected by him.
It is ironic, then, that in spite of Best’s nuanced performance, Vincent is the least interesting person in the play. The rhetoric of breaking free and living spontaneously that he employs to try and persuade Rachel to come to Australia with him sounds tired and stale, a verbal habit that is as self-conscious as the hat he wears.
In this regard, it is appropriate that one of the rare instances where the technical element of the play feels contrived is a video interlude of Vincent and Rachel talking on the Millennium Bridge. The significant time delay between the jerky, looped footage of their movements and their dialogue shouts “look, we’re making a point” in a heavy-handed manner that, while seemingly unintended, is well suited to Vincent. He is a perpetual student who can only find meaning in dramatic gestures.
Another, more important issue is the way in which the suicide bomber plotline, which serves to bring the various disparate characters together, falls flat. The terrible consequences for a society that alienates, disenfranchises and, as a result, radicalises youths in ethnic minorities is a well-rehearsed theme. The ambiguity of the language of self-betterment used by the bomber, Amar Saleem (Shane Zaza), is interesting but, in general, there is little here that hasn’t already been done elsewhere.
In fact, the play is at its best when focusing on the older characters and their stories. Robin Soans is riveting as Dennis, the piano teacher tortured by illicit desire for his childlike student, Christopher. And Dearbhla Molloy is no less compelling as Irish grandmother Anne; hardened by years of isolation and familial neglect, her expressionless reaction to the news that her grandson, Vincent, has died in the bombing is a powerful evocation of the cost of surviving.
David Watson and director Clare Lizzimore have created a thoughtful and deeply moving production in which every element – verbal, visual or aural – is rigorously deployed to intensify the depiction of a society defined by inarticulacy and miscommunication, but not without hope. Vincent’s explosive death not only foregrounds the black comedy of the play’s title, but also frees Rachel to chart a course through life that is not dictated by the same polarities of conformity or rebellion that have proven so destructive elsewhere.
(At the Arcola Theatre, 2-25 September 2010)
Reviewed for musicOMH